It’s easy to dismiss the cover song on principle nowadays. With post-millennium ears made pre-emptively cynical by interpolations, by endless streaming playlists dedicated to recorded reworks, and by an insatiable online content beast feeding them new flavors of familiar, it somehow feels right to judge an artist for piggybacking on the success of another. Each click on an ironically electronic Dolly ditty, a country-fried Beyoncé take, a Bowie-inspired mambo, even a faithfully executed Velvets rendition, it deadens the listener a fraction more.
Historically, however, covers made the music business go ’round. Jazz and pop standards essentially drove those top-level genres for decades, dazzling and drawing in consumers who might not otherwise have taken the plunge with their hard-earned wages and hard-won stealings. With respect due to the in-house think tank at Motown, so many of the iconic R&B imprint’s albums depended on the format, with many of its artists incestuously sharing the same tunes in the hopes of outdoing the others. Labels like Blue Note and Verve commercially depended not just on songs written specifically for the jazz idiom, but from Broadway and Hollywood, too. While the scribes behind these standards may or may not have made big bucks off of the ensuing covers, given the notorious shadiness of the industry, the material itself lived and thrived in the hands and throats of those who approached it.
In the 1960s, albums comprised either entirely of covers or otherwise largely populated by them ran rampant, and Spanish Harlemite Willie Bobo went with the flow. For the Puerto Rican percussionist’s 1965 effort Spanish Grease, his first for Verve as a bandleader, he turned to the Billboard charts for viable album fodder, rendering Latin-tinged variants on certified hits of the time like “Hurt So Bad,” made famous by doo-wop crew Little Anthony and the Imperials, and “It's Not Unusual,” still one of Tom Jones’ biggest bops. Apart from a lively titular original co-written with cornetist Melvin Lastie, Bobo rounded out the record with jazz fare penned by Harold Ousley and the then-departed Oscar Pettiford, all recorded at engineer Rudy Van Gelder’s vital studio in New Jersey.
Bobo’s ability to cross so nimbly between soul and jazz on Spanish Grease and its like-minded boogaloo successor Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3 the following year came as the product of roughly a decade’s worth of recording other people’s songs. In the 1950s, he played alongside Cuban-born conguero Mongo Santamaría in Tito Puente’s band and featured on 1956’s Puente In Percussion for Tico Records, a New York City imprint that also put out albums by the city’s other mambo kings Machito and Tito Rodriguez. Amid the mambo craze of that decade, vibraphonist Cal Tjader recruited both Bobo and Santamaría to play as part of his quintet on a number of Fantasy Records albums, including Latin For Lovers and Más Ritmo Caliente. He also recorded with pianists George Shearing and Mary Lou Williams, the latter apparently having given William Correa his nickname-cum-stagename as a young man.
By the 1960s, Bobo proved a jazz fixture, and considering how heavily bandleaders and session players leaned on him during that time, his name ought to crop up more often when discussing the drummers of the era. Herbie Mann, Sonny Stitt and Don Wilkerson count among the bandleaders looking for Latin flair or a taste of that Bossa Nova turned to him time and time again. The latter genre category was all the rage early on in the decade, and as such his imprimatur graced opportunity-seizing records like Miles Davis’ Quiet Nights with pianist Gil Evans. He also continued working with Tjader, including on the 1965 hit “Soul Sauce.”
The list of jazzmen Bobo performed alongside in that decade and through the 1970s is striking in its breadth and depth. Nat Adderley, Benny Golson, Grant Green, Gabor Szabo and Clark Terry all tapped him for their respective albums. Later, as record execs dug through their archives and excavated unreleased recordings from their past rosters, we received further indicators of his reach in jazz. He appears three times on 1980’s Landslide, a Dexter Gordon set for Blue Note derived from a handful of sessions that took place between 1961 and 1962, not long before the tenor saxophonist released his seminal Go for the label.
Not everyone who sought out Bobo utilized him in a predictable way. Recorded mere months after Davis’ Seven Steps to Heaven sessions in 1963 as well as his own for My Point of View, Herbie Hancock’s visionary Inventions & Dimensions took him on alongside percussionist Osvaldo “Chihuahua” Martinez and bassist Paul Chambers for an unconventional improvisatory endeavor. Here, the pianist let the rhythm players lead, and while Bobo’s drumming is informed by Cuban musical tradition, it is in no way bound by it.
Hancock, of course, gave boogaloo a baptismal gift in 1962’s Takin’ Off opener “Watermelon Man.” With the pianist’s blessing, Santamaría recorded a version later that year and it soon became his signature hit. Though the original blues-based number bore no overt linkage to Latin music traditions, the conguero heard its potential for permutation at a Bronx supper club gig together and transformed it into the prototype for the jazzy Latin R&B hybrid that would soon sweep the nation.
Bobo may not have played timbales on Santamaría’s “Watermelon Man” — Alegre Records mainstay Francisco “Kako” Bastar did — but he spoke the same musical dialects as his fellow journeyman and frequent bandmate. Indeed, uptown sounds defined and fueled boogaloo, a genre he shares with the likes of Ray Barretto and Pete Rodriguez. In a way, this then-emerging and oft bilingual mix popular in the mid-to-late 1960s marked a break from the Afro-Cuban orthodoxy that characterized much of the Latin music that preceded it, giving Puerto Rican practitioners like Bobo more leeway. You can hear that liberation in the work of Joe Cuba, the Spanish Harlem conguero behind seminal boogaloo singles “El Pito (I’ll Never Go Back to Georgia),” which interpolates Dizzy Gillespie’s “Manteca,” and the all-English “Sock It To Me.” Similarly, Rodriguez’s “I Like It Like That” swings with a deeper shade of soul, to borrow a phrase from Barretto’s songbook, as does Ricardo Ray’s “Colombia’s Boogaloo.”
Knowing the path Bobo traveled to arrive at Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3, as well as the context of its creation during a booming period for Nuyorican musicians, adds a weightiness to this highly enjoyable 1966 album that a cursory listen wouldn’t reveal. Again, those jaded modern ears of yours may find the contents here too kitschy or otherwise steeped in novelty. In doing so, however, you ignore the conditions under which this work appeared and do a disservice to what he and his boogaloo peers accomplished, which was to make a new pop format reflecting a savory sonic stew of legitimate and lived-in influences.
From the get go, Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3 leaves little mystery as to the nature of its contents. Opening instrumental “Boogaloo In Room 802” brushes off any lingering dust with a downright peppy shuffle. Back at Van Gelder Studio again, Bobo leads his band through a series of covers and, much like on Spanish Grease the year before, the selections reflect an eclectic range worth admiring. Covered on that last record, Brooklynites Little Anthony and The Imperials prove worthy source material once again with “Goin’ Out Of My Head.” Though it subs out the verse lyrics for Clarence Henry’s evocative guitar, perhaps Bobo saw something worth drawing from the narrative behind “Come A Little Bit Closer” by Queens’ Jay And The Americans. Venturing outside of the five boroughs, he claims The Beatles’ Rubber Soul ballad “Michelle” and makes it almost unrecognizable, while his take on St. Louis soul singer Fontella Bass’ “Rescue Me” bears enough of its hallmarks for listeners to grasp.
So much of Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3 bears a bright and lively sound, as was expected from music associated with preceding Latin music crazes. Yet when “I Remember Clifford” emerges, its Melvin Lastie cornet melody backed by subtle and subdued percussion, the drifting — if brief — number reminds us that Bobo’s abilities go beyond the frenetic and festive. Taken from the adapted 1964 Sammy Davis, Jr. musical Golden Boy, which was Tony nominated the following year, “Night Song” saunters between its punchier, jazzy moments.
Still, Bobo’s talents on the timbales come through clearest when the pace picks up, as on the urgent closer “The Breeze and I,” a hit for Jimmy Dorsey and Bob Eberly back in 1940. That backwards glance makes for an amusingly uptempo redo of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat showtune standout “Ol’ Man River,” enlivened by free-spirited percussion. Credit throughout is due to Bobo’s conguero Carlos Valdes, bongo player Osvaldo Martinez, as well as rhythm section members Jose Mangual and Victor Pantoja.
Yet even as Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3 elevates and trumpets the merits of the covers album, its sole Bobo original makes the record truly special. The neighborhood level of insularity on “Fried Neckbones And Some Homefries” suits the bodega frontage snapshotted for the album’s artwork. Sung with echo chamber harmony, the title reflects the cultural fusion of Spanish Harlem as much as the boogaloo itself. The band rises and falls around this hunger for a taste of home, inspired perhaps by wanting during late nights in the studio or the less than satisfying cuisine found on the road. (It’s impossible not to hear Joe Cuba’s “Bang! Bang!” also released that year as a perfect companion, with its comfort food refrain crying out for cornbread, hog maws and chitlins.)
Considering his preceding discography as a sideman and his years of shapeshifting in jazz combos and mambo ensembles, Bobo’s decision to exclusively play timbales here seems a bold and meaningful choice. On the back of the original Verve record jacket, the promotional copy quotes him extensively about Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3. One passage in particular is telling, with Bobo bemoaning his typecasting in the jazz world: “If you’re Latin, people expect you to play only Latin.”
A byproduct of years of working under American and British bandleaders eager to explore or cash in on Afro-Caribbean derivations, that sentiment hangs like an albatross around Bobo’s neck. Too often, then and now, the polyrhythmic powers of Latin percussion find themselves restricted by cultural expectations. With others at the helm, Bobo’s timbales mastery served their immediate needs but limited his artistry. So when it came time to record for himself, he chose to stick with the instrument he knew best, the instrument he played best, genre be damned.
Street corner doo wop, musical theater and nightclub jazz all could benefit from timbales, in his view. Someone just needed to show people how it was done. This, then, is precisely why Uno Dos Tres 1•2•3 isn’t just another covers album by a jazz act with Billboard charting ambitions. It’s a statement of intent, one that couldn’t have been done if comprised primarily of easily misinterpreted originals or even inventively revised Cuban songs. Bobo absolutely needed to rely on standards and contemporaneous pop hits to break free from bias and stereotype surrounding his music. Whether or not he proved his point here remains up for subjective interpretation, but considering the caliber of these dozen songs, he deserved the right to have tried.